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Apple's $5 Billion Mistake

By Tim Brugger - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:30PM

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The mobile leader's new super campus is getting more expensive by the day, and the timing couldn't be worse.

With its stock price down 35% over the past six months, and concerns about a lack of innovation and growing competition, Apple (AAPL 2.54%) doesn't need the PR nightmare that its new uber campus will likely become. According to an "anonymous insider," who spoke with Businessweek, Steve Jobs' dream of "building the best office building in the world" will become a reality -- for what's estimated to be a staggering $5 billion price tag. The money itself isn't the problem, of course; Apple has that in its petty cash drawer. But the timing of the project? That's another matter altogether.

The new digs
Four months before Apple guru Steve Jobs passed away, he gave a presentation to the Cupertino, CA city council. Along with several architectural renderings, Jobs described what he envisioned as a self-sustaining, four-story circular structure, large enough to house as many as 12,000 employees. With 2.8 million square feet, acres of trees, and imported 40-foot panes of glass, this was never going to be a cheap proposition.

Initially, Jobs and Apple were working with about a $3 billion budget. Now, with projected costs ballooning to $5 billion, Jobs' dream campus would cost about three times that of your typical downtown commercial high-rise building on a per square foot basis. According to the aforementioned "insiders," part of the delay in breaking ground -- Jobs had hoped for a 2012 start date -- lies in Apple CEO Tim Cook and his team's attempts to shave $1 billion in costs.

Cook's found himself between a rock and a hard place. Altering Jobs' vision for the new campus would enrage Apple fans, who still revere Jobs as an iconic, larger-than-life figure. But proceeding with a $5 billion project when shareholders are sitting on massive losses, and big hitters like David Einhorn are screaming for Apple to share some of its $137 billion in cash, has the makings of a publicity disaster.

What should really concern investors
As competitors across the mobile space have continued rolling out new designs that have narrowed -- or in some investor's views, surpassed -- Cupertino's offerings, Apple investors are left waiting for something --  anything -- they can sink their teeth into. There's no arguing with Apple's profitability, or its strong financials, but its product introduction cycle, historically a little over 300 days for the iPad line, needs to tighten up. By comparison, Samsung and Nokia (NOK 3.28%) seem to have a new smartphone coming out weekly.

As for Microsoft (MSFT 2.03%) and Google (GOOGL 1.77%), both have entered the mobile hardware side of the market, but neither are hamstrung by having to build their own devices to expand offerings as Apple is with its iOS, so bringing the "next great thing" to market takes nothing more than an OS licensing deal. Microsoft recently released its own Surface Pro and, while it's expensive, hopes are high. Microsoft's RT tablet is another story, as poor sales by its RT partners have some discounting RT by as much as $220. Google's expected to roll out the next generation of its Nexus 7 in July, directly targeting Apple's iPad mini market. With Google Glass, white space wireless connectivity testing, and its Fiber Internet service, Google is always willing to push the envelope, something Apple bears suggest it has fallen behind on.

Nokia, especially now that it's jumped on the Windows 8 bandwagon, is able to introduce new smartphones at an incredible rate; four during late February's Mobile World Congress alone. Nokia has a long way to go before it starts making Cook nervous, but Apple -- which only treads in the high-end smartphone space with its costly iPhone -- is limiting its revenue opportunities in emerging markets.

With each new Nokia or Samsung phone, or Google or Microsoft OS tablet, the mobile battlefield gets more competitive, and a new Apple campus isn't going to help calm investor fears. Apple has never been a company with an expansive product line-up, and that's been a key advantage to the company. However, in a PC market where its market share sat in the single digits, demands were different. The pace of mobile innovation is extremely fast, and when you have up to 80% of market share in certain carriers like AT&T in launch quarters, retaining such high market share could mean that faster launch cycles, or offering a wider variety of phones (via different prices or screen sizes) could become a must to sustain growth. 

Without a new, leading-edge iDevice introduction soon, things are likely to get worse for Apple before they get better, and that's what Apple investors should focus on. Unfortunately, Apple's learned the hard way that perception matters to investors, and its extravagant, multi-billion dollar campus is sending the wrong message at the wrong time. 

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